Atlantic editor says he is maintaining magazine’s mission of activism

James Bennet, editor-in-chief of the Atlantic magazine, spoke to a roomful of students at a Davenport College Master’s Tea on Nov. 8 about his experience as a journalist, the mission of his magazine, and the bumpy road of challenges and doubts he had faced on the way to his prestigious position.

A Yale graduate and former editor-in-chief of the New Journal, an undergraduate publication, Bennet told his audience, “I never set out to be a journalist. I loved school; I loved being at Yale; I loved learning … and journalism is a profession that rewards that.”

His success in the journalism field, however, did not come without serious commitment and constant struggling, he said, noting that the first few years of his career were marked by repeated rejections and lucky, last-minute openings. It was not until he reached The New York Times that he found consistent success, he told his audience.

The majority of the talk was devoted to Bennet’s time at the Atlantic, where he has been since 2006. As editor-in-chief, Bennet has for the past six years focused on shaping the magazine and maintaining its long tradition of journalism and activism.

The magazine was founded in 1857 by a group that included such notables as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — who shared an interest in abolition. Citing this history, Bennet noted that the magazine has always been about driving forward grander goals.

“The magazine is one that tries to advance big ideas with intellectual honesty,” he said. “The Atlantic has always been a part of what its conductors believed to be the ‘American idea.’”

The magazine no longer has one single rallying point as it did 150 years ago, said Bennet, although the Atlantic has received a lot of press recently due to its articles dealing with gender and the economy, notably “Why Women Can’t Have it All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It is, instead, the writers that set The Atlantic apart from other publications, he contended.

“We are a community of writers who disagree with each other but all have a shared sense of purpose and are experimenting wildly with all different types of forms,” he explained, noting that he believed that this was a legacy of the founders he thought was worth continuing.

Bennet’s talk was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism at Yale.